Doha, Qatar: Qatar has approved legislation to scrap controversial exit visas which require all foreign workers to obtain their employers' permission to leave the country, according to official statements published Tuesday.
There are some two million foreign workers in Qatar, many employed directly or indirectly on vast infrastructure projects for the football World Cup, which will take place in the emirate in 2022.
Under Law No. 13, only a maximum five percent of each company's workforce -- thought to be those in the most senior positions -- will still need permission to leave Qatar.
The law change "regulating the entry, exit and residency of expatriates" was issued as an Emiri decree by the country's ruler HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, reported the Qatar News Agency.
No further details were given by the government and it was not immediately clear when the new law will come into force.
"The adoption of this law is another step in our continued drive to provide decent work for all migrant workers in Qatar and to ensure their protection," said labour minister, Issa Saad al-Jafali al-Nuaimi.
The move was immediately backed by the UN's International Labour Organization, which opened an office in Doha this year as part of a three-year agreement to oversee labour reform, and called the announcement a "first step".
"The ILO welcomes the enactment of Law No. 13, which will have a direct and positive impact on the lives of migrant workers in Qatar," said Houtan Homayounpour, head of the ILO's Doha office.
Other reforms agreed by Qatar with the ILO include the introduction of a minimum wage, workers' committees and a fund to ensure people receive unpaid wages.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the announcement represented a "huge step" for workers' rights.
"An estimated 1.5 million workers will now have the freedom to leave Qatar without their employers' permission and eliminates a central part of the kafala (sponsorship) system of modern slavery which is still in place in other Gulf countries," she said.
She urged Doha to put into law protection for domestic workers, who are covered by different legislation.
Research published last year by rights group Migrant.org found that around a quarter of all exit visa requests were denied by the government.
Critics have long argued for abolition of the exit visa and Qatar has been keen to show it is capable of substantive labour reform in the run-up to 2022, which it has argued can act as a catalyst for reform.
Also on Tuesday, another Emiri decree announced new rules for those wishing to become permanent residents in Qatar.
These include living in Qatar for 20 years, having a good reputation and knowledge of the Arabic language.